Wikipedia's Awkward Adolescence

Like a startup maturing into a real business, Wikipedia's corporate culture seems conflicted between its role as a harmless nouveau-digital experiment and its broader ambitions.

By K.G. Schneider
Wed, September 26, 2007

CIO — Have you ever worked in a company where the lead project managers were mostly brilliant and hardworking—but short on accountability and frequently elusive? Where, after formal business meetings, the insiders met informally to make the real decisions? Where the product inspired a cult-like devotion among many users—but nonetheless left users or customers privately wondering if the product wasn't inspiring more than a little irrational exuberance in a sometimes shoddy, often mysterious product?

If so, then you understand Wikipedia's corporate culture, and you also understand the growing pains of this popular and undeniably useful free encyclopedia.

Wikipedia (which was consulted regularly during the writing of this article) is not a commercial organization. But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and like all organizations, Wikipedia needs to eat. In real dollars, Wikipedia is financially lean, at least for a global encyclopedia; the budget statements posted to Wikipedia claim it has a "de facto monthly budget for regular expenses" of about $75,000—a reasonable, even modest sum for the hardware and networking needs of a global encyclopedia with more than 2 million articles that hovers among the top 10 trafficked websites. But if you don't pay people in real money or similar assets to work, then what is the quid pro quo?

For some participants, virtue is its own reward. "I'm sure that people contribute to Wikipedia for lots of different reasons, some noble and some crass," said Nicholas Carr, author of the forthcoming book, The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny. However, Carr added, "The desire for power and prestige is [also] an important motivation, and I think if you took that away you'd lose a lot of Wikipedia's most ardent contributors."

Like a startup maturing into a real business, Wikipedia's corporate culture seems, at times, conflicted between its role as a harmless nouveau-digital experiment and its broader ambitions. The "power and prestige" to which Carr refers results from management practices that were less noticeable when Wikipedia was smaller and its editorial community newer and less formal. However, these practices were noticeable enough that Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger departed in 2002, later citing issues with the project's "antielitism." The issues have become more visible since Wikipedia has grown.

Wikipedia claims anyone can edit an entry and, superficially, that is true for most pages (due to edit wars, administrators can now lock pages). Popular culture even identifies Wikipedia's loose access as its primary weakness. Stephen Colbert mocked Wikipedia on The Colbert Report, editing an entry while on live television, and CalTech graduate student Virgil Griffith embarrassed thousands of companies, organizations and individuals with Wikiscan, an interactive website that can "list anonymous Wikipedia edits from interesting organizations," revealing self-serving edits from organizations as diverse as Diebold, Bob Jones University, and the Republican and Democratic parties.

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